New politics, new France

With expectations that surpass those of Tony Blair and Barack Obama, can Emmanuel Macron deliver the change so many believe in, asks Felicity Slater

European centre-left has few reasons to be cheerful. The Dutch Labour party was hammered at the polls in March. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union looks set to gain further ground from the Social Democrats in September’s federal elections. Here at home, despite making significant headway in June, the British Labour party still has a long road back to No 10.

One man, however, bucks the trend. In May, left-of-centre Emmanuel Macron pulled off a bid for the French presidency, and went on to lead a new movement to victory in the recent parliamentary elections.

In November last year, Macron announced he would stand for the presidency, under the banner of his newly founded centrist party, La Republique En Marche. His decision to break with the Socialist party and run on his own, new platform was a huge risk. He had just two years’ cabinet experience under his belt, as François Hollande’s economy minister, and no previous elected office to speak of.

While a relative newcomer to politics, the greater challenge for Macron lay in the design of the Fifth Republic and its electoral system, which weigh heavily in favour of two mainstream established parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, France’s frequently rebranded centre-right party. Elections take place in two rounds, with the two highest-scoring candidates going through to the second round in a run-off. Without the ballast of one of the biggest political brands, it is difficult for third parties to cut through. The only candidate before Macron to win from outside of these two was the centre-right’s Valery Giscard-d’Estaing, in 1974.

So how to explain his success? The political context suggested the Elysee Palace would change hands; in all likelihood, back to the right: Hollande barely had a honeymoon period to speak of after his election in 2012 before his presidency became historically unpopular, so it seemed impossible that any Socialist candidate could overcome the association to the toxic brand of the incumbent. Marine Le Pen’s ascension promised to put her into the second round of voting, and it was reasonable to believe she would follow in her father Jean-Marie’s footsteps to take the party into the second round of the presidential election with the centre-right’s candidate. What Macron couldn’t count on was the gift of François Fillon’s nomination as Republican candidate.

In January, news broke that Fillon’s wife, Penelope, had been paid €800,000 over eight years to be parliamentary assistant to her husband, with no evidence that she did any work. She also received significant redundancy payments when Fillon was obliged to give up his parliamentary seat to become a minister. The saga rumbled on, as it was revealed that two of Fillon’s sons had also been employed as parliamentary assistants and, similarly, appeared to do no work. Thus unfolded a particularly French brand of political farce, of which the highlight was Fillon’s defiance. In a February press conference, by which point he was under judicial investigation for misuse of public funds, he not only refused to quit the presidential race but criticised the media for having the audacity to investigate him. In a reminder of how entrenched the right is, in spite of a gruelling five months of scandal, he was only one point behind Le Pen, who beat him to the second round face-off with Macron by 400,000 votes.

Macron also secured the support of centrist, three-time presidential candidate François Bayrou, who announced he would not stand, in a deal with Macron. An alliance between MoDem, Bayrou’s party, and En Marche followed for the legislative elections, which saw the two parties not stand against each other and MoDem agree to support the new president’s programme in the Assemblée Nationale.

The left surged in the presidential and parliamentary elections – but it was for the populist left. Led by firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, La France Insoumise broke through, gaining almost 20 per cent of the vote in the presidential race and 17 members of parliament in June. The biggest losers are the Socialist party. Having governed for 19 of the 46 years since the modern Socialist party was founded in 1971, the party’s existence now hangs in the balance. From the six per cent voteshare achieved by Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon in the presidential election in June, it went on to lose all but 31 of its 280 parliamentary seats won in 2012.

With a strong showing on both the left and right – Melenchon only came a narrow fourth to Fillon in the first round of the presidential race – Macron managed to break through. From unknown civil servant barely three years before, he topped the first round with almost one in four votes, and went on to win with 66 per cent of the vote in the second. In the parliamentary elections, the En Marche-MoDem alliance won 361 seats (of which 319 were for the former), out of the 577 up for grabs. Despite the political circumstances in his favour, it is impossible to say Macron – and subsequently his party – were certain to win. A left-of-centre agenda triumphed because he and his party identified a demand for a modernised, progressive politics and met that call through its policies, operations and personnel.

In ideological and policy terms, the comparisons with Tony Blair are not without grounds. The cover of his manifesto is emblazoned with the words ‘rediscover our winning spirit to build a new France’, and the name of his party, En Marche, means ‘on the move’. Macron adheres to the idea that the defining divide in politics today is between internationalists and isolationists. He talks passionately about challenging the system and vested interests. The former investment banker turned economy minister’s desire to liberalise the rigid French labour market have been met with uproar from France’s leftwing establishment. Aware that it will meet with every bit of resistance the small ‘c’ conservatism of the traditional left can muster, Macron is keeping to his pledge of embarking on reforming the country’s labour code as his first act of reform.

While Macron’s political colours were revealed during his time as economy minister, the way in which his new party developed its programme attested to its promise to ‘rebuild the country from the bottom up’. With clear echoes of the Barack Obama campaigns, Macron’s supporters went on a mission to speak to voters. They held in-depth conversations with 25,000 people, with a focus on amassing qualitative rather than quantitative data, and for a starting script they had just two questions: what works in France, and what does not work? This was the cornerstone of the movement and informed the manifesto. Not only did it serve that purpose, it consolidated early on the idea of Macron as a modern politician, leading an open and engaged party.

Macron’s biggest modernisation lies in honouring his commitment to putting the party’s values into practice at home first, with candidates chosen to represent its values and reflect the scale of its ambition. The idea of building from the bottom up was put into practice more radically than the Obama-style community engagement. Macron met his promise that over half of his candidates would come from ‘civil society’: 52 per cent had never before held elected office. Only shortly after becoming involved in the party, people who had no previous involvement in politics were encouraged to stand for office, although of those finally selected, it is difficult to know how many had been politically active. Gender equality was also enforced in selections, with slightly more women than men chosen to stand, and crucially maintained for winnable seats. The final pool of candidates also boasted more young people, with a lower average age than those of other parties, while more than one in four candidates were small-business owners. When it came to being truly representative of wider society, however, with graduates from the prestigious grandes ecoles institutions overrepresented, and – although more difficult to track, thanks to the country’s phobia of collecting data on ethnicity – seemingly more white than the population as a whole.

What happens now? En Marche is on uncertain ground. It is not only new but made up largely of untested politicians, starting with the president himself. Macron may style himself as another heir to Blair but, as ever, the context will determine his success. Above all, the promise of modernisation will face the reality of the French establishment.

If the project fails, it will disappoint more than those in France, as Europe’s progressives watch on for signs of recovery. While it is fruitless to try and transpose a political project from one country to another, the centre-left would do well to emulate the modernising zeal of Macron. Although far from complete, the renewal of the political class En Marche set about to achieve – with some success already – is an example to follow. It is a process without end, but one that if neglected will consign the centre-left to irrelevance.

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Felicity Slater is a member of Progress. She tweets at @FelicitySlater

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